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Jeff Montgomery

A lazily flowing Nanticoke River made a splash of its own Saturday as state and federal officials formally commissioned a 26-mile ecotourism trail along a waterway that ranks as one of the state's most-unspoiled and biologically diverse.

Conservation, government and history groups collaborated on development of the water trail, centered on Delaware's 26-mile portion of the river, which extends an additional 37 miles through Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay. Much of the land along both sides is lightly settled, agricultural or undeveloped, with thousands of acres protected under natural or wildlife-area designations.

"Once you get around the bend here and get beyond the old DuPont plant, it's as close as we get to wilderness," said Chaz Salkin, Delaware's Division of Parks and Recreation director. "It's pretty amazing."

Delaware produced four water-tolerant maps detailing its stretch of the trail, in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, National Park Service and Chesapeake Conservancy, among others. More are expected to follow as Maryland adds to its own program.

"This river isn't exactly like it was 400 years ago, when John Smith and his crew were plying these waters, but we're doing our best to get it back into that kind of shape and making nice progress," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who attended a dedication that included a Nanticoke Indian dance.

"The challenge has always been, 'How do we balance economic development, economic growth and the need to consider our natural resources?' " Carper said. "I think we're doing a better job at that."

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin P. O'Mara said the river had a complicated history. It was important for its role in shipbuilding and waterborne commerce, but is also rich in its aquatic life and fishing resources and is the natural habitat for many species of plants and animals, some of which are rare and endangered.

O'Mara, who has rowed most of Delaware's stretch of the river from Seaford to Maryland, described the trail as "gorgeous" and "one of the healthiest rivers on the Delmarva Peninsula."

The Rev. Charles Hergenroeder, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Seaford, agreed.

"They use Seaford as sort of a trans-shipment place for grains and all that, but there's also a lot of leisure use. They have a nice riverwalk along the river," said Hergenroeder, who led a group of visitors from Baltimore along lines of antique cars on display near the river.

The river, Hergenroeder said, is an important part of the community's identity.

"It's a source of pride to the town. It's a great place to live because of the river," Hergenroeder said.

Delaware's portion of the trail is accessible from seven boat launches at various points, with the river passing near walking and equestrian trails and a scenic byway.

Downloadable maps, event schedules and trip information is available at a new website: